The Letter

Driving back there always felt like she was being transported back in time.  Almost as if to confirm this sentiment, she switched on the radio and wasn’t surprised to hear the local station playing Van Morrison, followed by Sam and Dave.

Margaret was on her way home…well, a place that used to be home.  She actually didn’t have any family left there anymore, but it was time for her fortieth class reunion, and she decided she wanted to go to this one. 

She’d had the past on her mind lately and thought maybe it would be good to go back.  Maybe it would be good to see some old faces and remember some old stories.  Maybe it would help make sense of some of the things she had been dealing with lately.  Especially as she thought about the letter she had gotten this week, she hoped that revisiting the past could hold some answers for her future.

She had been driving nearly three hours after leaving work early so that she wouldn’t get into town too late.  It felt good to be putting some miles between her and the office.  She was tired. So tired.  Usually, at the end of the day lately all she had the energy to do was heat up something in the microwave and fall asleep on her sofa with the cat curled up on her stomach.

Margaret sometimes felt like she could actually feel the bags under her eyes getting a little heavier, the gray hairs appearing more and more plentifully.  It usually didn’t bother her, but lately it did.  Somewhere along the way, time had seemingly accelerated with each year since she left the hometown that she could now see appearing in the distance.  She reached into her purse for a piece of gum and frowned as she felt the outline of the letter she had placed in there earlier. 

As she drew closer to the lights of the town, she thought about her old classmates.  What had the years brought them?  She wondered if some had grandchildren by now?  Were the high school sweethearts were still married?  How was everyone doing after all this time?

Margaret tried to busy herself with these thoughts – but truthfully, what was most on her mind wasn’t her old classmates – rather, she was wondering and worrying.  She was trying to figure out where so much had gone so wrong.  She said out loud, to God and to herself, “What in the world am I going to do?” as she couldn’t stop thinking about the contents of that pale ivory envelope in her purse.

It was past suppertime now.  The reunion didn’t start until tomorrow, so she was trying to decide whether to go directly to the hotel, or to drive by the family farm.  Nobody lived in the old farmhouse anymore but she and her brothers and sisters still owned it and the land.  Her brothers and nephews still came back there to go hunting and fishing.  She only debated a moment before turning down that country highway she knew by heart. 

Past the country church on the hill, past the abandoned schoolhouse, past Hanson’s barn and the old Johnson house she drove and felt the anticipation rising in her chest.  She turned onto the dirt road that always used to get so muddy in the spring, went over the hill where her oldest brother had his first car accident, and up the long driveway where she had learned to drive a stick shift.  And she was home.  Home.

No matter how much time had passed, every time she came back Margaret still half expected to see the yard light switch on as her dad used to do when he would hear a car pull up after dark.  No matter that it had been decades since her mother had died – she couldn’t help but glance up at the kitchen window where her mom would have been pulling aside the curtain about now to see who was coming.

She stopped the car in front of the house and got out.  Everything was quiet.  The only light came from the nearly full moon and the cool stars overhead.  She pulled on her jacket, grabbed the letter from her purse, and wandered around the yard, observing everything and nothing in particular. 

Memories were soaked into everything here  – moments shared with her brothers and sisters and then with her children when they were small and she would bring them here and they would run and play in the woods and on the hills.  These days when she came back, sometimes she felt lonesome for the soil itself that everyone had left it behind.

She walked up on the front porch and sat down on a folding chair that remained.  The air was chilly but she wanted to stay a while and think….because this used to be a good spot to figure things out.  She had always felt like she could hear God more clearly when she was there…and she hoped the same thing would be true tonight.

Margaret pulled the letter out of her pocket.  In the moonlight, she could just barely make out the words on the page.  Truthfully, she didn’t need the letter anymore – she’d had it memorized for days, but she still stared at it as if it were some strange language she didn’t yet understand.

The letter read:  Dear Margaret,  “Due to a change in business operations, your department and every job in it will be eliminated. Your position will no longer exist and you won’t be replaced. We are sorry to inform you that you will be laid off from your position as of December 1st”The letter went on with some brief formalities and then ended with a tidy, “We appreciate the work you have done.”

Twenty-two years she had worked for them.  Twenty-two years she had given them – rarely taking a sick day.  She had put in the long hours, the extra time.  No, she hadn’t particularly loved the job itself or found it to be exceptionally challenging, but it had been comfortable and she always received compliments on her work.  Plus, she had so many good friends there.  That would be the hardest part about leaving…many of her co-workers were the friends who had comforted her when her parents died, and when the divorce came out of nowhere.  They had celebrated birthdays and holidays together for years. 

And now, as of December 1st, she would no longer be a part of that place.  She would no longer have the routine she was so comfortable with, daily contact with those friends, or a paycheck.

She felt hopeless as she sat on that porch, the same porch where she used to dream about all the endless possibilities…but now she simply felt discarded. 

The minutes ticked by.  She propped her feet up on the side of the porch railing and looked up at the stars.  She said out loud – to God and to herself – “Why?” 

She sat there for quite some time, thinking, listening. There was only silence.

So she thought it couldn’t hurt to elaborate.  She said, “Everything is a mess, God.  I don’t know how to start over, but I don’t have enough money to live on the rest of my life.  I can’t rely on my children who are just getting started with their own families.  I thought I was doing okay.  I thought I was doing enough.  Why does everything have to change now?”  She sighed. 

But an answer didn’t come from the heavens.  Instead, as Margaret sat there mired in the past, muddling with questions, and enveloped in silence -she spotted a flower pot on the corner of the porch.  It was a big clay pot – very plain, chipped and unattractive now from years of being beaten by the weather.  But as Margaret fixed her eyes on that pot she could remember the day her grandmother brought it over to their house and placed it there with a bright arrangement of artificial daisies in it.  She had found it at a rummage sale. 

Oh how Margaret had loved her grandma who told intricate stories with a cup of coffee next to her and her hands busily working on her embroidery.  What was it she always used to say?  She was trying to remember – there was something Grandma would say whenever someone in the family was muddling with a decision.  She’d say it whenever someone was feeling too sorry for themselves.  She told Margaret she had said it to herself a million times when her husband had died at an early age and she had to raise their three children alone.  What was it again?  And then Margaret remembered – she would say, “Begin to weave and God will give the thread.”

“Begin to weave and God will give the thread.”

 “Ah yes,” Margaret said.  It was close enough to a voice from the heavens for her.  If Moses could receive a message from God through something as strange as a burning bush, she’d happily accept hers through an old flower pot.  Margaret got up off her chair, folded the letter and placed it in the flower pot, and went over to her car.  Her eyes surveyed the house and the yard one last time before she got in the car and abruptly drove away. 

 And she did not go to the hotel.  She did not go to the reunion.  Instead, she drove back past the Johnson’s and the Hanson’s, past the abandoned schoolhouse and the country church, back to the Interstate, and headed back home. 

Yes, she was tired.  Tired from the long drive.  Tired from working too much and resting too little.  But she was mostly tired of looking behind.  So tired of pondering the years that had passed and worrying over what was long gone…and frankly, she had been tired of her old job, too.  It had just been so comfortable, so steady. She had been living so cautiously and carefully, so dutifully following her routine – it had been effortless to while away the years until suddenly twenty-two of them had gone by.  She said out loud, to God and to herself, “No more.”

In that night air, as she thought about the years to come, she could sense change and risk and new beginnings floating around everywhere – and suddenly she didn’t fear it anymore.  And she wasn’t sure why, but something in it all felt sacred – as she drove off toward her future that night.

 

Laughing at Funerals

When my Grandma died, I remember the whole family gathered in the basement of our church while we waited for the pastor to come in and pray with us before we would be seated in the sanctuary.  I was fourteen and in addition to me and my immediate family, there were tons of my cousins and aunts and uncles stuffed into that room – most of whom I had never met before.  I had grown up living just down the road from Grandma.  I spent time over at her house most days – talking at her kitchen table and usually eating something good she had just baked. I was angry that all these cousins and aunts and uncles were at her funeral – they all lived far away and I didn’t know any of them.  I didn’t consider them to be my family and I bristled at the idea that they were just as closely related to MY grandma as I was.   


So we all sat in that basement room on the light green vinyl chairs and scratchy orange sofas and waited.  The room was completely silent.  Every now and then there was a sniffle.  I could hardly bear it – the silence, the sadness. 
 In the corner I heard a muffled sound that at first I thought was someone crying – but when I looked over I saw my cousin, Cookie, who was a few years older than me, was completely red in the face, her handkerchief pressed in a ball against her mouth, and she looked like she was about to explode.  Her shoulders were shaking and as she wriggled uncomfortable it only took a few moments before I realized she wasn’t crying – she was desperately trying not to laugh.  Her mother realized, too, what was happening and she was whispering at Cookie to behave and to ‘Shush”. But of course,  trying to hold in a good laugh is about as easy as herding a group of cats – and within moments, Cookie burst into laughter.  Even as she did it she said, “sorry, sorry, sorry…” but we knew she was a goner.  The laugh had to get out.  I looked at each of my cousins then, and bit by bit I could see each of them observing Cookie and trying not to smile themselves…but she really had become a funny spectacle, and one by one they started to giggle.  Then the laughter spread to Aunt Vivian, then Aunt Marilyn, my mom, and suddenly the whole room was enveloped in laughter…and that is how Pastor Vetter found us, the grieving family, when he walked in the room.   

There were two things I loved about that moment.  First, as I looked at Cookie and her round face turning red and her robust laugh – I kept thinking about how she reminded me of someone when she laughed.  In a moment I realized she looked just like our Grandma when she laughed.   And second, I couldn’t help but think that if Grandma could see all of us in that moment she probably would have been pretty happy.  To see the country cousins and the city cousins, the unfolding generations of her offspring just laughing together.  It felt like such a blessing and a release to let go of the tears for a moment and see chuckles and smirks, chortles and smiles – a family, though we really weren’t much of one most of the time, brought together that day for a single sad reason, but truly united only in that one random burst of mirth. 

You can’t tell me that moment wasn’t holy. 

Paul’s letter to the Philippians says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again I will say, rejoice!”  Brothers and sisters, as we make our way through the challenges and changes of this life, may we be willing to be surprised by joy.  God has the victory.  This is the day that the Lord has made – let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Dreams

This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:

“In the Last Days,” God says,
“I will pour out my Spirit
on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions,
your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes,
I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
and they’ll prophesy.
I’ll set wonders in the sky above
and signs on the earth below,

Who cannot love a text like this one?  Anytime in the church year is a good time for dreaming, and any scripture is a good landscape for dreams and hopes – yet, I think on Pentecost this is particularly so. 

And who doesn’t love a dream?  I remember not long ago I watched a video of the speech given on August 28, 1963 by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr – his famous “I Have A Dream” speech – and the beginning of it was obviously something he had written down and taken a great amount of time to craft and it was very good – but it was after he had already been talking for a while when he seemed to go off script – stopped reading off the page and just started talking about the dream of freedom he had for his children and the generations to come.  Even watching just a recording of that speech, fifty years after he first spoke those words, I could feel the electricity and energy of that moment.  It has been written that right before his speech shifted course, Mahalia Jackson had cried out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” And so he did – and as he did it captured the imagination and the hope of everyone who heard it.  In the wake of that speech, King was named Man of the Year by TIME magazine for 1963, and in 1964, he was the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Who doesn’t love a dream?  We must have them.  What is life without them?  We need the dance of possibility, the song of hope, the whisper of challenge within dreams.  Gloria Steinem wrote, “If our dreams weren’t already real within us, we could not even dream them.”  The great C.S. Lewis said, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” And don’t forget the poet Henry David Thoreau who said, Do not lose hold of your dreams or aspirations. For if you do, you may still exist but you have ceased to live.

I think I have your attention.  There is something inside us that needs to have dreams and desires in order to feel alive.  We understand the language of dreams because we are human beings and not robots or machines.  We are created of blood and bone and flesh and the Spirit of the living God – and thus we were created to be dreamers.

I like to tell the story of a classmate of mine from kindergarten through high school – her name is Karen.  She grew up just down the road from me outside our little hometown in Minnesota.  Karen was quiet, but well-liked.  She was active in many activities, liked to draw and play piano.  Somewhere along the way Karen started saying she was going to be an astronaut.  She said it in a matter-of-fact way – like I said I thought I’d become a pastor, and our friend Jamie wanted to own a restaurant.  We all had our dreams and our teachers and parents encouraged each of us and there was never any doubt that we would become those things we dreamed about.  So the wonderful thing was that none of us were surprised when our dreams came true – when Jamie opened her restaurant and when I was ordained and when Karen finally went up on the space shuttle – there was no surprise for any of us. There was happiness, but we had believed in our dreams all along – that was a gift our teachers and parents gave us.  That sense that with hard work and a good attitude, eventually dreams came true.

But the thing that is perplexing to me is that it seems like we treat dreams as something that are only for the young.  As if once we get to a certain age, that dreams become not a sign of good things – like strength and aspiration and hope and persistence, but rather of foolishness and wishful thinking.  And yet, in our scripture for today it clearly says that your young men will see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.  We were not meant to quit dreaming.  We were not meant to just have one dream and once that comes true, call it quits – rather, the dreams within each of us have a holy and certain reason for being there. Far from foolish, far from wishful thinking – we are quite simply, given dreams in order to keep working to make them a reality.

It’s true in life and it is true in work and it is true in the church.

In his book, the 4-hour work week, Timothy Ferris tells a story about a man named Hans who tried paragliding for the first time in Rio de Janeiro.  He describes how Hans ran and stepped off a jagged rock toward 3,000 feet of nothing, holding his breath, he wondered if he would pass out he was so scared – and then he realized he was floating through the air.  He said he left his fear behind on that mountain top and life was different after that.  That moment happened on a Sunday and on Monday Hans returned to work at his law office in California and handed in his three-week notice.  For the last ten years he had faced his alarm clock with the same dread – he would think, “I have to do this for the next 35-40 years?” 

But he said he realized something while he was paragliding – that risks weren’t that scary once you took them.  His colleagues told him what he expected to hear – he was throwing it all away.  He was an attorney on his way to the top – what more did he want?

Hans didn’t know exactly what he wanted but he had tasted it in that moment when he faced his fears and flew.  On the other hand, he did know what bored him to tears, and he was done with it.  No more passing days as the living dead, no more dinners where his colleagues compared cars.  It was over.

Immediately, a strange shift began to happen – Hans felt, for the first time in a long time, at peace with himself and what he was doing.  He had always been terrified of plane turbulence, as if he might die with the best inside of him, but now he could fly through a violent storm sleeping like a baby.  Strange indeed.

More than a year later, he was still getting unsolicited job offers from law firms, but by then he had started his own surf-adventure company based in Brazil.  He spent a lot of time relaxing under palm trees and treating clients to the best time of their lives.

He smiles as he thinks to himself, “Is this what I was so afraid of?”

A popular fortune cookie saying reads, “Many a false step was made by standing still.” 

I wonder what dreams are sitting out there in those pews today. What hopes and aspirations you hold.  Is it a journey you have been wanting to make?  Is it the novel you have been trying to write?  Is it the classes you wish you could take, the business you wanted to start, the long race you wanted to run, is it project you are certain would be a blessing to the church, the community – and you feel like you might just be the one with the gifts and passion to lead it?  If it is a dream that sticks with you, a thought that you cannot shake, a tapping on your shoulder that won’t go away – there’s a name for that – and it’s more than a dream – it’s a calling.  And the only way to deal with a calling is to listen and answer “yes.”  Well, that or ignore it and grow ulcers and probably grow depressed – but I would go with the answering yes.    As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”

And while the lessons of remembering the genius and power of our dreams is important for each of us personally, we must remember them as a church as well.  Our church, as most churches, was built on the hopes and dreams of the first settlers who longed for a church home and they planned and they built and lo, there was a church. 

But sometimes churches stop dreaming about possibilities.  Is it because worries become more pressing than dreams?  Or is it because we don’t want to get our hopes up?  Or is it because we don’t really believe God’s promise to always be with us whenever we move forward in faith?  Or is it just plain fear?

Friends, this Pentecost day and always – Jesus has more in mind for us than fear. God has a dream for us – a dream that is realized as the Holy Spirit works through us just as it did through the first disciples when they were empowered to share the good news.  God has a dream for us that we will not be content to remain the same but to grow and evolve and keep finding new ways to love and serve him with our every life and breath.  God has a dream for us – that we will be brave and true, not timid and fearful.  That we will work for justice and peace, even and especially when it is hard.  God has a dream for us – that we not only want to share this faith with the generations that follow us, but that we will pray for this Holy spirit to burn in their hearts and give them absolute fire of will to serve Jesus with all their days.  Do not lose heart, because God has a dream for us – for you – and as the apostle wrote – I am sure that the God who began the good work within you will keep right on helping you grow in his grace until his task within you is finally finished on that day when Jesus Christ returns.  In his name we pray.  Amen.